Patagonia, “The Responsible Company”


From the first time that I started digging more deeply into what Patagonia is all about, I have admired the company. Climber and anti-hero of business, founder Yvon Choinard has been ahead of the game in sustainability before many others even knew there was a game. He’s (kind of) the hipster of sustainability, he was doing it first, before it was in, and he doesn’t even know that that is necessarily, officially, what he’s doing. He just does it. Some might even say he, himself, is just “organically” and spontaneously sustainable (really laying on the layers of natural-ness here).

In light of this – in light of of the commitments to low carbon emissions, smaller footprint, nature-friendly climbing gear, founding membership of Fair Labor Association, in light of the living wages, incredible employee treatment, and because of the sustainable sourcing of materials, I find criticism of the company surprising. Patagonia won my heart despite their incredibly high prices and the somewhat preppy culture that has developed around the wearing of their products. But I am proven naive.

In August, 2015 PETA released a video taken at the operation sites of one of Patagonia’s suppliers, Ovis 21. The company supplies wool, and as such the video is of sheep. Sheep having legs broken. Sheep with entrails hanging out as they walked about. Sheep being slaughtered, or having their tails cut off quickly and efficiently, but without much overt mercy. Sheep starting to be skinned as they still flail, bleeding out (whether because of twitching nerves, or by conscious movement, it is hard to determine). There are scenes of sheep being punched and kicked, and all in all of sheep having what must amount to a pretty terrifying life and death. Now, I have helped to slaughter chickens, and I’ve had to put a roadside deer out of its misery, and I’ve felt the fear, heat, and life emanating and draining from these beings as they cast about helplessly. It’s a horrid feeling, and though I would do it again if I needed to, I would hate it. That said, I’ve still done it. Yet my stomach still turns about the treatment of sheep being sheared, beaten and handled without care as they are used to keep us warm, and I wonder if the killing process couldn’t eliminate the element of consciousness on the part of the animal being slaughtered if at all possible (a maul-induced unconsciousness would be preferable) or if an air gun could be purchased. Since one of Patagonia’s key phrases is to “Cause no unnecessary harm,” and elements of the treatment of the animals are most definitely unnecessary, this seems out of place.

And so I am left with this dilemma; the company I have hailed as a paragon of responsibility is also responsible for pain and suffering, restricted by no means to sheep, since the Atlantic published an article concerning the labor/human trafficking happening within the Taiwanese second-tier mills that Patagonia uses as well. The sourcing is not responsible completely, and many are glad that Patagonia no long purchases wool from Ovis 21, and that they are working to cut ties with more mills in order to have more control over conditions. On the other hand, I consider the livelihood of the workers at Ovis 21, and those at the mills cuts from the supplier list, and wonder about the responsibility of those actions as well. Who gets to decide?

Bottom line: Patagonia his dealing with problems endemic to globalization. Can it be avoided? They may be handling these problems better than Apple or others, but the issues, pain and hardship are present nonetheless. They are faced with some tough choices, and I am faced with confronting my delusions of total responsibility and sustainability in the supply chain of one of my hero companies.

 

Image of Lambs on one of Ovis 21’s farms: http://qz.com/479984/patagonia-and-another-ethical-clothing-brand-are-being-accused-of-a-new-kind-of-animal-cruelty/

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15 thoughts on “Patagonia, “The Responsible Company”

  1. I”ve seen the video that you reference in your blog, and I agree that the footage is horrific and hard to watch. I would argue that we should look at this from a much bigger perspective, that is, animal abuse/discrimination at large. Yes, people abuse and hurt sheep at Patagonia’s wool factories. But…we slaughter millions of animals a year to eat and sustain us. Both are important issues, and I think they get at bigger ethical dilemma’s of animal rights.

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    1. Agreed. I think the differentiating factor in this is simply the claims to responsible sourcing that Patagonia rightfully makes and the connotation that, for me, comes with their name (I don’t expect or assume that with most meat distributors) and how it makes me wonder if this is as good as supply chain management gets of if they just slipped.

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      1. I agree with this. I haven’t seen the video but I can imagine from your description that it was pretty horrible. However, I have seen many other videos highlighting animal abuse that I will argue are equally, if not more, horrifying. That being said, many of these videos I just mentioned probably feature slaughterhouses of meat distributors who do not claim to be friendly to animals. This is why Patagonia’s claim that they “cause no unnecessary harm” only makes their video worse.

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  2. The issue of animal rights is certainly an important one to take into a consideration, specifically with clothing companies. Clearly, these issues are not limited to solely Patagonia; I recently watched a video about the alligator slaughter houses used by Hermes to get the necessary alligator skin for its luxury purses and belts. When looking at these two companies in particular, I would argue that Patagonia does a better job than Hermes and most other companies in manufacturing its products in sustainable, environmentally friendly ways that respect the rights of animals. To me, animal abuse rights pose are an important ethical and moral dilemma. Just how concerned, though, is the average outwear shopper over where the wool or down came from in the coat? These days, I believe Patagonia is worn more for its trendiness appeal than its environmental consciousness….I dont think you see so many Patagonias being worn around Bucknell because students here like what the company is about.

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    1. Your statement about the trendiness of Patagonia is absolutely correct. My management 101 company sold Patagonia pullovers and the sustainability of the product was not at all a selling point or justification for the price with most of the customers (most did not know of Patagonia’s reputation). I wonder how Patagonia would feel about that.

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  3. In economics, we expect markets to surface information that firms use to adapt. new input costs. New financing arrangements. Changes in customer preferences.

    Can we apply the same to social responsibility? As much as Patagonia or any firm tries to monitor its supply chain, maybe we need the information market to help surface new information not available to firms on their own. In short, up to a point, learning about problems is less disturbing than if a given firm does nothing (or deliberately covers up) inevitable problems. Do you agree?

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    1. I do agree. I think the troubling thing here is just the realization that Patagonia isn’t necessarily being lax or turning a blind eye, they are doing well. The question it raised with me was can anyone have clean hands in an industry like this if even Patagonia doesn’t at times? It’s a wake up call to how deep-seated the issues of globalization are.

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  4. The point has been raised in the comments already, but I agree that it is an exceedingly difficult thing to gain sustainable control of one’s supply chain in today’s Neoliberalistic globalization. How is sustainability defined in our country as compared to the country where these sheep are processed..? Would more sustainable efforts directed towards the sheep rob the funds towards providing a better work life for the employees..? Whether it’s environmental, social, etc, there are probably going to be trade-offs between what rights we want to make manifest.

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  5. That was a very interesting post. Personally, as an owner of many Patagonia pieces, I did not know about these problems. This is most likely due to the fact that they’ve been trying to repair their image after these news got out to the media. I would say that I am disappointed by Patagonia and the way they addressed this situation. As you mentioned on your post, what is supposed to make Patagonia a sustainable company is the fact that they have been tackling sustainability problems before they even arose; however, events such as these prove that they might not be better than other companies, since they’re being reactive rather than proactive.

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    1. So would you say that they should have stuck with the supplier and tried to adjust their practices concerning the sheep? I wondered about whether their abandonment was the “best” solution.

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  6. I would like to see Patagonia investing in the well being of these sheep. It would definitely improve their brand loyalty and obviously help the sheep not suffer. Animal rights are always a controversial topic in business, and while I would hope that companies would make sure no one is in any pain, animals probably do get the short end of the stick. Im sure PETA and other large animal rights activists are looking into this situation and would try to improve the sheeps’ conditions.

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    1. What I wonder is how they will do that while also thinking of the employees at Ovis 21, and all of their stakeholders. I don’t know if cutting ties with the supplier as they did is strictly a win-win. Or at least not a win-win-win.

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